chapter  4
19 Pages

Language and discourse

For Hayden White, the minimal form of historical sequence is the genre of ‘chronicle’. The chronicle is open-ended, beginning and ending in an apparently quite random manner. By contrast, a historical story sets up a distinctive framework by the imposition of a beginning and an end (1973: 5-7). Beginnings and endings are crucial to narrative because they frame it, shaping the material to be dealt with, and demarcating its ‘artistry’ from the ‘real world’ outside and signalling its mode of encoding (Kermode 1967;

Lotman 1977: 215-17; Said 1997). They constitute ‘privileged positions’ (Rabinowitz 2002: 300-303) establishing the basic parameters of the narrative world and inflecting readerly interpretations of it. Beginnings generate and motivate the ensuing logic of the narrative and endings confirm that logic by fulfilling it in its moment of final closure. Their construction, however, is anything but self-evident and reveals the creativity of language in its temporal dynamism. In Janette Turner Hospital’s novel Charades, the eponymous

protagonist, a postmodern Scheherazade as her name and that of her interlocutor, Professor Koenig, suggest, tries to tell the story of her family. Koenig is bewildered by the twists and turns of her tale:

These quandaries of narration are not new, as Hospital intimates by her intertextual allusions, nor is their problematization within fiction itself. InHeart of Darkness (first published 1899), Joseph Conrad dispenses

with the problem of beginning. Introducing the scene on the deck of a yacht where Marlow will tell his tale of a journey to central Africa, the frame narrator refers back to an earlier beginning: ‘Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea’ (1990: 135). The frame narrator thus points back to similar comments at the beginning of Youth (a long story published a year before [ibid: 93]). Marlow himself employs the same strategy at the opening of his embedded narrative: ‘And this also … has been one of the dark places of the earth’ he begins abruptly, obviously continuing aloud a train of thought he has already been pursuing mentally (ibid: 138). Conrad appears not to believe that

a story has a clear beginning. Any story refers back to a tale that precedes it. Beginnings, then, are arbitrary, contingent, dictated by mere pragmatism. Laurence Sterne made the problem of beginnings the subject of an

entire novel, Tristram Shandy (first published 1759-67). Following the hegemonic form of the novel as a narrative of an individual’s life, Sterne’s protagonist begins with his own birth (Bennett 1979: 23; Lotman 1977: 214). However, being as thorough a narrator as he is, he realizes that one cannot begin a narrative of life at the beginning (i.e. the birth), but must go back to a moment before the beginning (i.e. the conception), which itself necessitates some considerable explanation about the rituals preceding the conception … and so on. Tristram’s beginning gets pushed further and further back into the past, or rather, more and more details shove the recounting of his birth further and further into the future:

But from the outset, this beginning transpires to be multiple. It immediately splits into its component parts, that of the narrated birth, and that of the birth of narrative. These two components work against each other for the rest of the text, as the burgeoning activity of narration hinders the narrative of the narrator’s birth.